Rashford’s victory shows football has the power to enact change

This is a timely reminder that the sport’s influence stretches well beyond its borders

Marcus Rashford was successful in is campaign to provide free school meals to 1.3 million children in England amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Peter Powell/EPA

Some PR stunt. In securing free school meals for deprived children over the summer holidays, Marcus Rashford has generated more tangible good with his voice than he ever will with his feet. In forcing the UK prime minister into a hasty spin of the heels, Rashford has delivered a timely reminder that football’s influence and cultural currency stretch well beyond its own borders. And by reaching beyond those borders in an urgent and worthwhile cause, he has demonstrated the power of common resolve and common purpose, at a time when – as he himself put it – society “appears to be more divided than ever”.

This, perhaps, is the wider point here, one that goes well beyond child malnutrition or child poverty or narrowing opportunity – or even the decade of callous political choices that have led to all three. Just 22 years of age and with little to no experience in professional politics, Rashford not only identified an achievable policy aim but solicited advice, did his own research, took soundings. Most importantly of all, he then sought the one prerequisite to any sort of change worth getting out of bed for. “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020,” Rashford tweeted upon the news that his campaign had borne fruit.

Indeed, if there has been one overarching theme of Rashford’s activism and his methods, it has been the pursuit of consensus. “This is not about politics,” he wrote early on Tuesday. “The same way us players put rivalry aside when we put the England shirt on, please #maketheuturn.”

In one important sense this is about politics. Children don’t go hungry in a vacuum. Only one party has been in office for the past decade. But perhaps Rashford’s overarching point here is about the pitfalls of partisanship, the boundaries of tribal loyalty, the limits of shouting in a closed room. Keir Starmer doesn’t control the education budget. LBC’s James O’Brien can’t change government policy. And as the Premier League starts up its engines and once again requests our undivided attention, there is a lesson here for all of us who profess an interest in the game.


It has become fashionable to see the world in terms of archetypes. Sport, and football in particular, encourages this trait by offering up ready-made silos, natural enmities, eternal conflict. Think of a team you don’t like and then try to think of all the different terms you use to disparage them. But this goes beyond club loyalty and into individuals: endless tribes, endless othering. You do it, I do it, we all do it. The plastics. The null-and-voiders. The football hipsters. As if every aspect of one’s personality, one’s essence, one’s basic humanity, could simply be extrapolated from a single opinion or choice.

Naturally, because this is football and because this is 2020, Rashford can expect the usual mean-spirited grumblings and whataboutery. Well, observes faceless avatar with a jumble of random numbers in their Twitter handle, you’ll notice Rashford hasn’t said a word about the massacre of ethnic Syldavians in Zyrkovia, so can you really call him a champion of the impoverished masses? Well, observes bizarrely popular right-wing columnist, you’ll notice that despite asking the Treasury to dip into its pockets, Rashford is yet to give away 100 per cent of his salary and all his possessions, so the only thing I’m tasting here is woke-left hypocrisy.

Just this once, it’s fine to ignore the noise. There will always be a cynical constituency to whom any public act by a public figure must be imputed with the malignest of motives. Brazil’s fourth goal against Italy in 1970: a PR stunt. Paolo Di Canio catching the ball just as he was about to score: a PR stunt. The 1914 Christmas truce in no-man’s-land? How convenient photographers turned up just as they were starting the game.

Rashford’s reputation will take a boost as a result of this, but, ultimately, who cares? Certainly not the millions of families poised to benefit from his intervention. And what makes Rashford’s pursuit of this cause so compelling is that it so clearly derives from his own experiences, his own senses, his own world. He knows what it feels like to be hungry. To be reliant on the generosity of others for survival. To take the bus from Manchester to Salford for training at The Cliff and be struck by the number of homeless people on the streets.

The “us and them” instinct in elite English football has arguably never been stronger. As a sport, we seem to have mislaid the idea that clubs are umbilically linked to their localities, that footballers are tied to the communities that produce them, that football fans have a shared consciousness that should occasionally cut across tribal boundaries, that the superclubs and the smaller clubs and the Sunday League clubs are part of a single, breathing organism, that collective problems can only be met with a collective solution.

And at times like this – atomically sealed, physically distanced, our contact with each other mediated through Zoom windows and email tabs – it becomes harder to think of ourselves as a cogent whole, as one game with a common purpose. This, perhaps, is the true sporting legacy of Rashford’s activism: to remind us that when football speaks with one voice, nobody dares shout it down. – Guardian